Stefan Edberg, Wimbledon 1988

From Love Thirty, three decades of champions – published in 1990

For the obvious reason that he is still a young man, capable of striding along the summits for many more years, ths can be no more than a half-term report on a graceful, classic exponent of the ‘big’ game. Unless memory lies, Mal Anderson has been the only other player of comparable class who, in the past 30 years or so, has served and volleyed with as much elegant facility as Edberg. In 1968, in Hamburg, I spent a long time watching Anderson. The serve and volley routine can be hard to take. It lacks charm. But Anderson’s instinctive ease of movement and racket-contol somehow gave that routine the uncomplicated allure of a Strauss waltz. So it is with Edberg. This is not to suggest that Edberg is the most efficient modern graduate of the serve-and-volley school. One refers only to the natural flair with which he does his thing. Unlike such heavily muscled contemporaries as Becker and Pat Cash, Edberg brings an aesthetic quality to the three-shot rally. His emergence is a striking eminder that Bjorn Borg‘s playing method – that of a baseliner with a two-fisted backhand – inspired no more than a transient trend in Swedish tennis. That method was Borg’s, not Sweden’s.

The main features of Edberg’s game are his mixture of services (many players find the second ball more difficult to handle than the first), his volleying, especially the cross-court backhand, and his backhand service eturns, which often explode down the court like shells. His forehand is a comparatively second-class shot for a first-class player: seldom threatening, and often wayward when his confidence is low. But Edberg’s command of the backhand and the top-spin lob gives him weapons enough for counter-punching from the back of the court. He is happiest in the forecourt, bending like a sapling in a gale as he springs this way and that and tucks away the volleys – whereupon he often gives a little hop of satisfaction at a point well won.
His general demeanour, though, is one of sad, dreamy languor. Often, he looks only half-awake. But this embodiment of a sight is a dangerously deceptive as those tall, quiet gunfighters familiar from Western movies. Edberg seems reluctant to hurry but, when he does move, the action tends to be swift and short and terminal. One can picture Edberg casually blowing the smoke out of the barrel and instantly going most of the way back to sleep.

He is that kind of man: by no means the aggressive, pushy type, but stubbornly resistant to being pushed. Edberg likes a peaceful, comfortably stable life. Gentle and unassuming, reserved and laconic, he is a private man who enjoys company as long as it is not too demanding. No fuss, if you please. He is among those who apply to themselves the principle that everybody is important but nobody is very important.
Physically, Edberg is a long-limbed, willowy 6ft 2in (which Rod Laver considers may be the ideal height for a tennis player) and weighs around 11st 7lb. He has an arresting and attractive court presence and when that handsomely composed but gloomy mien is enlivened by one of his slow smiles, the mothering instinct wells up in ladies of all ages.

Edberg has a London apartment, in Kensington, but his home is the industrial home of Vastervik on the Baltic coast. He played tennis from the age of seven, took up the game full time at 16, and in the following year, 1983, won the junior Grand Slam. This invited less attention than the 17-year-old’s form in the now defunct Bournemouth tournament. He had to qualify but then reached the semi-finals by beating the cerebral and charming Balazs Taroczy, a specialist on such slow surfaces. Edberg told us that he was a policeman’s son and took up tennis because his mothe wanted him to. His Bournemouth form, plus the comment about his mother, was the first hint we had that he was something special but needed help in fuelling the fires of ambition.

For a few years he was none too sure of himself, none too sure what he wanted out of tennis, and none too sue if the ultimate prizes were worth the effort. He was lucky in that the European representative for Wilson’s, the company who made Edberg’s rackets, turned out to be a congenial friend and, before long, assumed the more constructive roles of manager, coach, and – most important of all – motivator. Tony Pickard had, in fact, turned up in Sweden almost five years before Edberg did. That was in 1961, at Bastad, where Pickard made his Davis Cup debut for Britain. As a player Pickard did not have quite enough talent to match his self-assurance. He soon discovered that it was the other way round for Edberg.

The biggest problem, was to get him to believe in himself. It took nearly three years.

Pickard, almost 32 years older than Edberg was exactly what the young man needed: a wise, witty, avuncular extrovert who knew when to nag Edberg and when to leave him alone.

At 18 Edberg made his Davis Cup debut, playing a spectacular role as Anders Jarryd‘s partner in two remarkable doubles wins. At 19 he confirmed his growing reputation as a tough, resilient competitor by winning the Australian championship. He saved two match points against Wally Masur and beat Ivan Lendl 9-7 in the fifth set. A week after his 21st birthday Edberg produced further evidence of his guts and his belief in himself when he retained the Australian title by beating Melbourne’s local hero, Pat Cash, in a five-set final contested in fierce heat. Between them, Edberg and Mats Wilander won that Australian title for Sweden five years in a row. No other overseas nation has done that.

The next big triumph for Edberg came at Wimbledon in 1988, when he recovered from two sets down to beat Miloslav Mecir in a semi-final that provided an enthralling contrast in playing methods – and then played a glorious match to beat Boris Becker in the first men’s singles final to begin one day and end the next. That year, too, Edberg came from behind to beat Mecir 9-7 in the fifth set of a decisive Davis Cup match.

In 1989 Edberg played the finest clay-court tennis of his career to each – and almost win – the French final. Becker was too strong for him in the Wimbledon final. But it takes a player of exceptional talent and competitive maturity to advance to the French and Wimbledon finals in the same summer. During the era of open competition (1968 onwards) the only other men to manage it were Rod Laver, Bjorn Borg, Ivan Lendl and John McEnroe – formidably distinguished company for a player who, for a time, had seemed to be vulnerably diffident. With Pickard’s help, Edberg learned the truth of a couple of lines in Shakespeare:

Our doubts are traitors, And make us lose the good we oft might win

1977 Wimbledon champion Virginia Wade

From Love Thirty, three decades of champions – published in 1990

Sarah Virginia Wade, popularly known as Ginny, was only the third British player since Dorothy Round, in the 1930s, to win three women’s singles Grand Slam tournaments. The other two were Angela Mortimer and Ann Jones, who both won on the extremes of court surfaces, grass and clay, whereas Wade’s Grand Slam titles were all on grass. Intensely patriotic, she represented her country for an unparalleled span of years: and her crowning achievement was to win Wimbledon in 1977 when the 100th championships coincided with the 25th anniversary of Queen Elisabeth II’s accession to the throne. The Queen was present for the occasion.

Wade’s patriotism had been diverted from South Africa. Her mother was born there, of British parents, and graduated from Rhodes University before moving on to Cambridge, where Wade’s father, an Oxford graduate, was chaplain. The youngest of four children, Wade was 11 months old when the family settled in Durban, where the archdeacon’s daughter turned out to be a bundle of inexhaustible energy, became obsessed with tennis, and gradually developed a tempestuous, slam-bang playing style. She was 15 years old and one of the nation’s most promising juniors when – South Africa having become a Republic outside the Commonwealth – the Wades returned to England, in February, 1961. At first they lived at Wimbledon, where Wade went to the local grammar school and, with her sister, joined the club across the road from the All England Club. She saw her first Wimbledon that year (Angela Mortimer beat Christine Truman in the first all-British final since 1914). It was in 1961, too, that the family moved to Kent and, this time, stayed put. All one needs to add to that potted off-court history is that Wade, the daughter of a clergyman and a mathematics teacher, studied at the University of Sussex and graduated in general science and physics in June, 1966 – her examinations coinciding with the more energetic challenges of a Wightman Cup contest at Wimbledon.

That background was important. As a much travelled teenager from a scholarly, intellectual, upper middle-class environment rooted in the vicarages of two nations, Wade was a rare commodity. Thee were plenty of players around who could list one or two similar items in their curriculum vitae, but none who combined so much that was unusual. Wade was a throwback to the kind of players who had graced Wimbledon half a century earlier. Inevitably she was something of a misfit in the context of the international tennis circuit as we knew it in the 1960s and 1970s. With her slightly haughty manner, her up-market accent, and her coterie of social and cultural peers, she dod not find it easy to mix with the street-smart hoi polloi. It was as much to her credit as theirs that, while remaining a mite eccentric, she eventually became part of the family. It might have happened sooner but for her comparatively cloistered upbringing.

All that goes some way towards explaining why, in her early years on the tour, Wade lacked a winning personality. It also partly explains why she found it difficult to keep a rein on a passionate nature that often erupted into querulous and unseemly on-court tantrums. She was agressive, turbulent, volatile, highly strung. Often, she was so nervous or distraught that her stroking technique and tactical sense were adversely affected. On such occasions she could lose to inferior players: as happened, notably, when Christina Sandberg, Pat Walkden, and Ceci Martinez beat her in the Wimbledons of 1968, 1979 and 1970. It sat oddly with Wade’s social and academic development that, at times, she could be capable of ill-tempered outbursts and tactical naïvety. She could not always control the fires burning within her – but they never went out. Wade always had star quality or, as friend once put it, a ‘divine spark’. She enjoyed going on stage at players’ cabarets. She saw herself, I suspect, as part of the ‘Establishment’ class born to exert authority. And as the years went by she mellowed, achieved emotional maturity, played with smiling self-assurance, and ceased to get rattled. She learned to control her temperament, her game, and her opponents.

Even the ‘phase one’ Wade was capable of great performances: spectacular, exciting, dramatic, but eschewing the infuriating wildness that punctuated those early years. The demons within were tamed on special occasions in 1968, 1971 and 1972. Her success in the first Open tournament, at Bournemouth (her birthplace), had no moe than historic signifiance, because the women’s event was a sideshow to the men’s. But in the first US Open championships in 1968 she was devastating, beating such formidable opponents as Rosie Casals, Judy Tegart, Ann Jones and Billie Jean King without conceding a set. She was the first British player to win the US women’s title since Betty Nuthall in 1930. The cheque for $6,000 mattered far less than the consistent splendour of Wade’s tennis in winning it. In a tent by the Forest Hills clubhouse she attentively poured champagne for the small contingent of Brits. In those days, there were not many of us around. I recall the stray thought that Wade – like Fred Perry before her – had a character in harmony with the bustling aggression of New York.

1968 Virginia Wade at Tennis Championships at Forest Hills Tennis Stadium, News photo

A different source of satisfaction came in the 1971 Italian championships, at that time the toughest clay-court test outside Paris. Wade liked Rome. She liked the tournament. But slow clay was not her scene. She had never mastered it: because patient, devious manoeuvring was not in her nature. That year, the field of 16 was mostly modest. But in the final Wade beat Helga Masthoff (formerly Niessen), who had once committed herself to the opinion that there was no way Wade could ever beat her on clay. Masthoff, tall and unhurried, wth more than a hint of hauteur, exuded the airs and graces of a rather supercilious grande dame. Off court, she had a droll sense of humour. On court, her iron-clad composure (plus the sharpest of tactical wits) could make the likes of Wade seem emotionally dishevelled. Beating her in Rome meant a lot to Wade. But as she poured champagne again, this time on the sunny terrace of the Foro Italico, Wade merely osbserved ‘I’ve learned how to play on this stuff’.

In 1972 Wade beat Evonne Goolagong, the French and Wimbledon champion, in the Australian final. But we had to wait more than five years for the ‘phase two’ Wade to win Wimbledon. She had been playing there since she was 16 (altogether, she contested the singles for 24 consecutive years). The semi-final pairings suggested that Sue Barker was more likely than Wade to win the title for Britain. But Betty Stove beat Barker: and Wade eventually overwhelmed Chris Evert, a result that left Evert in shock for days.
Then Wade beat Stove – whereupon the centre court became a raging sea of Union Jacks, applauding hands, echoing roars, repeated hurrahs, and the improvised paradox of ‘For she’s a jolly good fellow’. It was rather like the last night of the Proms: one of those special occasions on which the British let their hair down. Everything had coincided to make this a great day: anniversaries for Wimbledon and the Queen and, most of all, the long-deferred triumph of a player closely identified with tradition, royalty and patriotism.

Virginia Wade

Wade was 5ft 7in tall and her weight usually hovered around 9st 7lb. She was dark and lithe, springy and athletic, thoufh rather heavy-footed. Her blue eyes had icy, alarming clarity. She had a graceful yet restlessly untamed air about her. One sensed the threatening reserves of nervous and physical energy, the jungle instinct, the prefeence (on court) for action rather than cerebral indulgences. In most of this she had much in common (and was aware of it) with the big cats. It was easy to imagine Wade in the latter role, bounding on to her prey and tearing it to bits. That natural athleticism, aggression and fighting spirit was the main reason for her success. Her racket-work was not exceptional. She had a superb first service, delivered with a classically fluent action, and her volleys were boldly terminal when she took care with them. The forehand was dangerous but often wayward, the backhand more consistently damaging – she put so much ‘work’ on the approach shot that, once over the net, it became almost subterranean.

Wade was a mass of contradictory qualities, not least the fact that she seemed to be thorougly English in spite of her South African upbringing and a disposition that was probably more suited to New York (where she was to settle) than the Home Counties. She aroused conflicting emotions but nobody could feel dispassionate in the presence of so much passion. In her autobiography Wade pointed out that she had the same birthday as Arthur Ashe (two years older) and that they were the first US Open champions and both won Wimbledon at the age of 31. Add the big services, the cultural interests and the African connections, and you can begin to believe in the influence of the stars.